Why Bulls, Cavs still East favorites

CLEVELAND -- Back in October, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers were the Vegas favorites to play in the Eastern Conference finals. Today the professional handicappers still say they're the favorites.

Even with the Atlanta Hawks winning 27 of 29 games. Even with the Washington Wizards' killer backcourt and frontcourt depth. Even with the Toronto Raptors' historic first two months that expanded their horizons. Even with the Bulls and Cavs in those teams' rear view.

And it isn't just the oddsmakers. Many people who work in the NBA and study this all day, every day, believe -- at least in varying degrees -- that by late May the conference finals will involve Chicago and Cleveland.

Quite obviously, this is hard to see now in mid-January, where perspective can seem as far away as the spring thaw. Especially after the Cavs, a chronic underachiever to this point, beat the Bulls, only a slightly less guilty underachiever to this point, 108-84 on Monday night.

When it comes to talent and the historically valuable ingredients usually required to make it through multiple playoff series, the Cavs and Bulls rate more favorably than their peers in the East. It was true three months ago and, in theory, it will be true in three months.

They have the stars, they have the depth and they have the time to make it work. And, therefore, they hold on to the favorite mantle. A bet on either seems rather foolish today, yet you still can't get it at much better than 3-to-1 at the casinos.

Monday, the "in the long run" mantra was going nowhere with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, though.

"We're halfway through the season," Thibodeau said, sizing up his team's sixth loss in the past eight games.

"Somehow the notion that's it's OK, we'll be all right. No. No. It doesn't work like that. This is what we have. It's on us to figure it out. No one's coming in to save the day. We've got to find the answer."

Thibodeau was railing about his defense, which had just surrendered more than 100 points for a fifth consecutive game. Last season the Bulls only gave up 100 points in regulation five times after Jan. 1. Chicago started the week 13th in defensive rating, not morbid but not acceptable for them.

Since Thibodeau took over in 2010, the Bulls have only been out of the top three in defense once, and that was when they were sixth two seasons ago. Last year, they were second.

The Cavs, though, dream of these numbers. They started the week a dreadful 26th in defensive rating and have been dropping. They won two games last week, snapping their six-game losing skid with a relatively strong defensive effort against the Los Angeles Lakers -- and they still dropped four spots. Don't even ask about defensive field goal percentage -- the Cavs came into the week ranked 29th.

"I think this was our best defensive game of the year," Cavs coach David Blatt said after holding the Bulls to 38 percent shooting and those 94 points, the fewest they've held an opponent to in 10 games.

So why the belief? Why say the Cavs and Bulls still are the favorites when, if the playoffs started now, they would be in a first-round matchup with the Bulls sitting in fourth and the Cavs in fifth?

For the Cavs, the signs of encouragement have been building. LeBron James returned from a two-week hiatus with force, and he's lifted the entire mood and effort level of his team. Though the injuries certainly played a significant factor, there is no missing that James has been more invested over the past four games than he was earlier in the season in several different ways.

His hat tip to Blatt for his role in designing a key out-of-bounds play last week was symbolic. James had gone out of his way for weeks to take digs at Blatt that were unnecessary and damaging, backing them up with irritating and undercutting comments. This time, James did something unnecessary and positive and backed it up with re-enforcing commentary, not just a sign of a thaw but a signal to his watchful teammates to follow that lead.

The recent acquisitions of Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith by general manager David Griffin already are working out. Mozgov was excellent Monday, with 15 points and 15 rebounds, and he totally frustrated Pau Gasol in the interior as he shot just 4-of-14. Mozgov's size gives the Cavs something they were badly missing all season, even before Anderson Varejao went down with a season-ending injury.

Smith hit six 3-pointers and scored 20 points, his outside shooting ability no doubt an upgrade from Dion Waiters, who was better suited as a driver. Smith is averaging 14.5 points and shooting 39 percent from 3-point range in seven games with the Cavs, both better than his numbers with the New York Knicks prior to the trade. The third new pickup, defensive specialist Iman Shumpert, should make his debut this week as he returns from a shoulder injury.

Blatt, who has been defiant about the notion he was embattled, has rolled up his sleeves and made a few adjustments that are paying off. After frustrating veteran players with yo-yoing rotations and playing time, he's slashed his rotation to just eight players over the past three games. His players have responded with more stable play and better effort.

Blatt also made a defensive adjustment, using Mozgov's presence as a weapon and instructing his team to be more aggressive in attacking pick-and-rolls because they have a true big man on the back line of defense. This, too, has gotten some positive results.

So what about the Bulls. What are their positive signs?

The team never, ever seems healthy. However, an MRI on Joakim Noah's ankle over the weekend came back clean, and he should be back in the lineup soon. Rookie Doug McDermott was activated Monday for the first time since knee surgery last month. And Mike Dunleavy, whose loss over the last 10 games with an ankle injury has stung the Bulls more than expected, has started running.

Derrick Rose, even though he was outplayed by Kyrie Irving Monday, has been dogged by shooting issues but is still having his best offensive month since he tore his ACL. Rather surprisingly, he's shooting 41 percent on 3-pointers over his last 10 games, including going 3-of-5 against the Cavs.

And at some point, Thibodeau is going to realize his team is different this season and that he's going to need to play more up-tempo basketball. The team has longed for scoring for years and the Bulls have it now.

Defensively, they just aren't as good as they have been in the past. Teams attack Gasol in the pick-and-roll and a knee injury plus a position change to accommodate Gasol has limited Noah's effectiveness. It's taken away some of what the Bulls have done so well in recent years. They aren't going to be the same defense, but they're also not going to be the same on offense.

Because he is a great coach, Thibodeau is going to figure it out and the Bulls can return to the level they played at last month, when they reeled off 13 wins in 15 games. He'll get his team away from the isolation ball they have settled for offensively recently, something not needed when they usually have three high-quality options on the floor at all times.

The Bulls are going to play better because they are better.

"In the East a lot of things are going to happen still," Blatt said. "There's still a lot of possibilities."